Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard.
when “i don’t care” is caring deeply: tom stoppard’s rock ‘n’ roll & the sixties.
If the genre of rock ‘n’ roll proposed that pop music could be theater, then Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll proposes that theater could be rock ‘n’ roll. At least in Charles Newell’s staging at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago this was the case. Featuring rows of stacked amplifier speakers and stage spotlights behind all the scenes, whether they took place in Cambridge, England cottage gardens or Communist-era Czech flats, the set hinted at how rock music suffused the most informal spaces of everyday life with an energy of the theatrical.
As the play conveyed quite well, rock circulated a pulsating dreamworld light that was at once semi-secretive, a glow concealed in the grooves of LPs and hidden within inner sleeves of record covers, and roaringly present, exploding the listener into an alternative universe of drama, comedy, and catharsis. Not unlike its precise opposite — state surveillance — rock was both always there, lurking in the shadows, and front and center, mesmerizing the citizenry.
“I don’t care,” is the final line of the play. It is spoken by the middle-aged English daughter of a Cambridge Marxist philosopher to her father’s ex-student, a Czech lover of Western rock who stumbles into becoming an anti-Communist dissident. She declares “I don’t care” after she runs off with the student decades after they first met in the months after the 1968 Prague Spring. By play’s end, it’s 1990, the year after the fall of communism, and she says the line moments before she and her new lover witness the Rolling Stones performing in Prague.
In the immediate context of the scene, the line teeters between an admission of failure and a shout of astounding victory.
Most directly, “I don’t care” is about the daughter finally forgiving herself for her own sense of a wasted youth.
But it also sounds like Stoppard himself finally giving up on the conventional Marxist politics that guided key characters in the play, such as the daughter’s father, a stalwart Stalinist and CP member. At the same time, “I don’t care,” also sounds like a suspicion that, even when rock music kept the spirit of dissidence alive in the Eastern Bloc, the Rolling Stones’ performance feels surprisingly like a shallow victory over communism. Thrilling, yes, but anything more than that? Knowing that the fall of communism only presented the new, and deeply troubling, problems of global capitalism in Eastern Europe, we’re not sure.
As the play ends, the spotlights turn up and glare into the audience’s eyes. We’re blinded for a moment. We care deeply, and in a blast of bass, guitar, and drums, are swept up, carefree.
But there’s more.
“I don’t care.” This line is spoken, I think, in the spirit of the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech rock band who haunt the play along with the ex-Pink Floyd singer and Cambridge, England, recluse Syd Barrett. Like so many counterculturalists, the Plastics just wanted to be free. They sought self-expression and group experimentation and a space for art-making. The Plastics merely wanted to play their music and thought of themselves as apolitical. They “didn’t care.” Yet they became dissidents, co-conspirators with Vaclav Havel, and a cause célèbrein the West, simply for not caring.
Not caring, when you get to thinking about it, actually turns out to be a complex idea. Stating that “I don’t care” is, oddly, a declaration of caring. In negating concern, it winds up communicating concern. Intentionally foregoing control, the speaker of this declaration asserts a strange kind of autonomy. Far from apathy, “I don’t care” comes across in Stoppard’s play as a carefully-wrought carefreeness rather than carelessness. The choice not to choose is to care enough not to care.
Okay, so it all starts to make sense, perhaps, the more stoned one gets. Fine, so be it. That does not make it any less intriguing as a speech act or the staking out of a position. To not care is to ask whether any of one’s past was worth it at all. To throw in the towel. To cease to matter. And yet, to not care is also the encapsulation of what Stoppard notices as the strange politics of the sixties counterculture: the refusal of “I don’t care” is what, in fancier language, the historian Julie Stephens has called an “anti-disciplinary protest.”
“I don’t care” becomes a kind of paradoxical statement close to the heart of the sensibility that guided the sixties counterculture. If not exactly political, then the declaration “I don’t care” was certainly public.
It was, after all, a declaration of independence — one with all the dangers of living in, and living out, the paradox of caring not to care.
Addendum: “Can theatre and rock music ever mix?”
Image: Goodman Theatre